Mystery Worshipper: Traveller
Church: All Saints Margaret Street
Location: Fitzrovia, London
Date of visit: Thursday, 1 May 2008, 6:30pm
Designed by the Victorian Gothic architect William Butterfield (1814-1900), All Saints was built in 1859 at the height of Butterfield's polychromatic period and is regarded as one of his finest works. Its appearance is a bit of a shock to one more accustomed to stone walls and plain glass; there isn’t a plain piece of wall, ceiling or floor in sight! But time and the smoke from mountains of incense have taken their toll, dulling the ceiling and walls. The floor tiles are wearing out too, the window tracery is rotting, the lighting fixtures have seen better days, and the heating system is falling to pieces. A restoration appeal has to-date raised about one-third of the just over 2 million needed for a complete refurbishing.
All Saints is a temple to Anglo-Catholicism, the highest of the high. What I found encouraging, however, is that they remain in the mainstream and pray for the bishop of London, not of Ebbsfleet; they arent Forward in Faith. Due to their standing in the Anglo-Catholic community, they minister to visitors from all over the country and the world as well as to their regular congregation. They are involved in a number of missionary works at home and abroad, including West London Day Centre, Christian Aid, and St Cyprian's Theological College, Tanzania. They maintain a licensed bar staffed by volunteers calling themselves the All Saints Club, serving refreshments on Sundays and other occasions.
A relatively quiet enclave of central London, given that Oxford Street is just two minutes walk to the south and Regent Street (and All Souls, Langham Place) is two minutes to the west. The church is sandwiched into a group of commercial and retail premises.
The Revd Alan Moses, vicar, was the celebrant, and the Revd Dr Graham Tomlin, dean of St Mellitus College, was the visiting preacher. Add in the deacon, subdeacon, crucifer, boat boy, acolytes galore and a couple of others in the sanctuary party and you end up with what seemed a cast of thousands, although in reality I counted 15.
What was the name of the service?High Mass
How full was the building?
Around one-third to one-half full, with some spaces in most rows in the centre but very few people in the rear and the side aisles. About 120, at a guess. In addition to the aforementioned sanctuary party, there was a choir of about 12 voices.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I received a welcoming smile and a proffered set of materials for the service from one of four sidesmen standing just inside the door.
Was your pew comfortable?
A wooden chair with interwoven seat. Unremarkable compared to everything else about the event.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Quiet and contemplative. The service leaflet said that it is their custom to keep silence before services, and it was mostly observed.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Let us proceed in peace," intoned by the deacon before the processional hymns were sung.
What books did the congregation use during the service?
New English Hymnal and a specially produced 12-page A5 leaflet for this particular service.
What musical instruments were played?
The organ. Music is important to this church and the organ is magnificent and was played superbly. The choir is small but extremely competent. The church has an illustrious roll call of former organists, one of whom moved on to be director of the Royal School of Church Music.
Did anything distract you?
Many, many, many things. The building is superbly ornate and decorated. This church has the biggest paschal candle I have ever seen: an eight foot candle on a seven foot high stand. It stood next to and towered above the pulpit and preacher. The altar party had their routine for high mass well rehearsed, but I was amazed by the choreographed movements of figures in black cassocks and cottas.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
High Anglo-Catholicism at its highest. Slow, stately and majestic in its execution. Bells, smells and candles off the scale – I counted 16 tall candles on the high altar and an indeterminate number of smaller ones. If formation genuflecting is ever to become an Olympic sport, here is the venue and here is the team, fully rehearsed. At my usual place of worship, one or two people genuflect; here, only one or two didnt. The procession around the church at the beginning took all of the 14 four line verses of the two processional hymns. A congregation not used to this style of worship might think it mannered and extreme. However, this is who they are at All Saints and this is what they do. For them it didn't seem at all stilted or artificial, but everything flowed quite naturally. The choir sang the mass setting (a difficult but rewarding work by Langlais) millisecond-perfect. There was also a Renaissance anthem, a plainchant responsorial psalm, and several lengthy hymns for the congregation, all blending nicely into the overall atmosphere of the service.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
9 – One would expect the dean of the college that trains priests and readers for the Dioceses of London and Chelmsford to be an outstanding preacher – and he was!
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
He elaborated upon the theology of the Ascension. This is not a key festival like the Incarnation or the Resurrection, but rather commemorates the transfer of the resurrected body of Jesus from one dimension of reality to another – the one we call heaven – in closer proximity to God. The Ascension is the vindication of humanity and Jesus' taking of humanity in the Incarnation. In the Incarnation the Word became flesh; in the Ascension the Word doesn't leave the flesh, but vindicates it.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
Heaven joined in! After the processional hymns, the choir began the entrance chant ("Ye men of Galilee, why stand gazing up into heaven..."). Just as this finished, an enormous clap of thunder rolled around the church. You cant argue with that. As a singer myself, I appreciate the importance of music in worship; here, the music was superb and an integral part of the service.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
As we knelt for the prayers, I settled out of habit into my customary posture, the one that some call the Anglican squat. This works only with fixed pews, though – I felt the row of light chairs move smartly backwards, leaving me in a very unnatural pose. My knees and thighs were in agony by the time the prayers finished. Penance, I suppose.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
I meandered toward the exit from the courtyard, received a limp handshake from the deacon, and spoke to the preacher, who was also looking lost. It was his first visit to All Saints too, and we discovered several things in common. So the visitors looked after each other. I was amused by the efforts of a six-foot-tall acolyte with a ten-foot snuffer trying to extinguish that enormous paschal candle – it took him three tries before he got it!
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
Coffee? The licensed club bar was open following the service. But I had skipped lunch and was in need of food as well as drink, so I passed up the opportunity to test the offerings.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I seem to gravitate toward higher rather than lower churches to visit. The churchmanship here was much higher than I am used to back home, and the choir sang most professionally. It was all very much to my liking.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes. To see how the Ascension ties in with other Christian teachings was a joy to experience.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
That mega paschal candle!